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‘It’s OK to be yourself here’

Posted Apr 26th, 2023

We are Niagara Health is a series of stories that celebrates the incredible people working and volunteering in our organization and how they make a difference in the lives of patients and coworkers every day.

A woman with curly hair leans against a doorway to an office. She is smiling for the camera.

As someone with an invisible disability, Volunteer Resources Co-ordinator Allison Campbell is grateful for Niagara Health initiatives like Diversity Month. 

Allison Campbell joined Niagara Health in 2020 to be part of something bigger.

The volunteer resources co-ordinator worked in healthcare previously, and after spending time in the private sector, Campbell was ready to get back to her roots.

“I missed that human component – working for purpose and not for profit,” Campbell says. “Helping people is instilled in me as a value and I needed to do work that mattered to me. I wanted to be part of something more.”

Being part of something more for Campbell also means feeling included. As someone with an invisible disability, that hasn’t always been the case.

Campbell is neurodiverse. While you can’t tell by looking at her, Allison’s brain structure, function and chemistry mean her strengths and struggles don’t always conform to societal norms. She prefers when information or questions are provided in writing. Handouts at presentations and printed agendas in advance of meetings reduce barriers for her. Sometimes she needs time to organize her thoughts and respond.

“Someone with a visual impairment, hearing impairment or learning disability is going to benefit from these accommodations,” she says. “They’re simple practices that make things easier on all types of people.”

Campbell can also be easily overwhelmed by sights, smells and sounds, and will turn lights down or not look someone in the eyes when they are speaking to help her focus.

She knew as a child she was different but wasn’t diagnosed until she was an adult. Growing up, being different was her normal and Campbell found ways to overcome struggles when she couldn’t relate to her neurotypical peers. She graduated top of her class in college and university, and was often labeled a leader, problem solver or creative thinker.

It was little comfort because the default reaction to her symptoms hasn’t always been kind.

“There have been changes but there’s still stigma with invisible disability. You can’t see it, so you don’t understand, and it becomes a judgment and not support,” she says.

“Sometimes when I ask for an agenda, or a copy of a presentation to follow along with, people will tell me to just wing it as if it’s an inconvenience for me to be provided with what I need. When someone who has a visible disability asks you to hold a door or reach for something on a shelf, you don’t think twice to help them.”

Campbell often found herself changing her behaviour or masking her symptoms in professional settings to hide her neurodiversity. At Niagara Health, she has become an outspoken advocate for diversity.

“The more we move away from all-or-nothing thinking about roles and expectations to say, ‘This is what I need from you; how can we make it happen,’ the better,” she says. “I reached a point where I’m not willing (to hide) anymore because it takes away from myself and my humanity. If I spend the day not being myself, it’s exhausting and the people most important to me don’t get the best of me. Everyone is different and needs to know they are allowed to be exactly who they are without judgment.”

Diversity Month at Niagara Health

Campbell is grateful for initiatives that celebrate people’s differences, including Diversity Month, which happens every April at Niagara Health. Diversity Month is an opportunity to reflect on how our differences give us strength and to honour people from different social and ethnic backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, abilities and religions.

Being neurodiverse is everyday life for her, Campbell notes. But now, so is feeling like she can be herself at work and having that ‘something more’ she craved in her career.

“The commitment to be inclusive and be equitable – to continue to learn from others and have conversations about psychological safety – is huge,” she says. “Niagara Health is ahead of the curve, and I think that’s really important for anyone like me to know. It’s OK to be yourself here.”

Niagara Health System